The longtime leader of the once-powerful Wisconsin State Employees Union said Wednesday that he will retire at the end of this month.
Marty Beil’s combative style carried the union through a difficult decade of state revenues hobbled by recession and a 2011 law that all but eliminated public-sector union rights, which led to two out of three dues-paying members dropping out.
Beil’s announcement follows a merger this year of his union with the two other Wisconsin councils of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Union membership and finances were hit hard by Act 10, which Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans enacted after they took over state government in 2011.
Beil, 68, said in an interview that a new generation is ready to take over the union and he is looking forward to spending time with family members, including his first granddaughter, who was born 10 months ago. But the Chicago native who moved to Wisconsin in the 1960s to attend Marquette University said he won’t forget the harm Act 10 did.
“It is unconscionable, and it is something I will hold against Scott Walker until the day I die, the pain he’s caused to state workers in such a careless fashion,” Beil said.
A plain-spoken fighter, Beil hasn’t reserved his barbs for Republicans. After a former Democratic lawmaker helped block ratification of state union contracts in 2010 and the next year was appointed to a $90,000-a-year job in the Walker administration, Beil lashed out using the governor’s catch-phrase about the state being “open for business.”
“This governor is busy creating a country club for cronies,” Beil said in 2011. “When he says ‘open for business’ and then appoints people like (former state Sen. Jeff) Plale, he’s obviously saying that he doesn’t draw the line at the world’s oldest profession.”
Plale, now Walker’s appointee as state railroad commissioner, said Wednesday he had no hard feelings toward Beil and he wished him a happy retirement.
“He was an aggressive advocate for his folks,” Plale said. “I wouldn’t exactly call him a warm and fuzzy guy, but he fought for his people.”
In 2013, Beil battled a group of prison guards who briefly succeeded in breaking a 5,900-worker bargaining unit away into a separate union, but four months later the spin-off failed to maintain state certification under Act 10’s rule requiring annual approval by 51 percent of unit members — not a simple majority of those voting.
Beil was hired as the union executive director in 1985.
“I was one of the fortunate, whose job was really my passion,” Beil said in an email to other leaders of his union, which is also known as AFSCME Council 24. “All of you and the thousands of workers who went before you were able to make life a little better for themselves and their families through the union, and I like to think that I played some role in that.”
Beil was hired in 1969 as a probation and parole officer. In 1973 he was elected president of his statewide local and a bargaining team member. In 1978 he became AFSCME Council 24 president and he held that position until he was selected as executive director.
Public-sector union membership had been declining, but it fell off sharply after Walker and fellow Republicans eliminated most public-sector collective bargaining rights, ended payroll deduction of dues and required annual recertification.
The state employees union counted 22,000 dues-paying members in 2011 and fewer than 10,000 a year later.
Walker championed the change, saying it was necessary to give government officials tools to balance budgets. Walker is now an unannounced candidate for president who trumpets his victory over the unions. Act 10 set off weeks of mass protests at the state Capitol and a series of recall elections. Some lawmakers were removed from office, but Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall.
Beil expressed confidence that the merger of Wisconsin’s AFSCME councils will allow union members to retrench and rebuild strength over the long haul.
“What excites me is the involvement and commitment of young workers to meet the challenge and assume leadership roles in our new union,” Beil said in the email.
Mike Fox, interim director of the merged union council, said executive board members would select a permanent director on June 27. Fox declined to discuss how many candidates were seeking the post.
Beil took a parting shot at anti-union conservatives.
“In spite of Act 10, Scott Walker, (Assembly Speaker) Robin Vos, (Senate Majority Leader) Scott Fitzgerald, the ‘tea party’ and every other nut job that is out there, I have a strong message. Workers will eventually prevail. Working families will once again set the agenda,” Beil said.
A spokeswoman for Fitzgerald declined comment. Spokeswomen for Walker and Vos didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Beil said he would continue to walk picket lines, take part in demonstrations and do anything else the union asked of him.
The three Wisconsin AFSCME councils — one for state employees, one for county and municipal workers in Milwaukee County and the other representing county and municipal workers in the rest of the state — claimed nearly 63,000 members in 2010. That number is likely less than 20,000 now, according to public records and statements by labor leaders. Public records for the state workers union show that Council 24 revenue dropped from more than $5 million in 2010 to $1.5 million in 2013. Like the other government employee unions in Wisconsin, it reduced staff to cut costs.
The labor groups have shifted focus to political action, influencing officials through elections and advocacy.
Some public-sector bargaining units have won recertification through annual membership votes under provisions of Act 10. They can bargain for small raises only, not for benefits or working conditions. They have no recourse to arbitration, as local government employees once did, if employers simply say no.